Writing Center
Fall 2008 Edition


Nicole Spencer
Expressive 2010 1st Place
Professor: Dr. James Aton

In the far southwest corner of Utah, Snow Canyon State Park is nestled at a crossroads of geological features. The sparse vegetation of the Mojave Desert clashes with the relative cool of the Great Basin Desert. Thrusting up Navajo sandstone formations, the Colorado Plateau mixes with these two deserts— creating a unique environment for plants and animals to thrive in. The Great Basin Desert acts as a calming force, among these three geological features, causing this small patch of land to be dryer than most of the Great Basin Desert, yet significantly cooler than the rest of the Mojave terrain. From the south, the Mojave Desert, which claims the lowest elevation and highest temperature, brings a variety of plant species that flourish in this mixed landscape.

One such plant, the blackbush, sports fuzzy white flowers, in the shape of a brush used to clean out baby bottles; these soft blooms are in sharp contrast with the cruel spines that cover the branches of this plant. Beyond their obvious purpose of keeping the plant from being eaten by hungry herbivores, the spines also act as a safe harbor for lizards and other small animals, protecting them from searching foxes. The blackbush is joined by the creosote bush and the narrow leaf yucca plant, both of which have adapted to the low precipitation and hot conditions found in the deserts of Southern Utah. The creosote bush acts as an upbeat character in this harsh landscape when it breaks into flowers with yellow petals. Its fleshy, green leaves appear to be ill-equipped to endure the endless assault of the sun, but on closer inspection, the leaves are incased in a waxy layer that helps the plant retain moisture instead of sacrificing it to the atmosphere.

Next to the four foot creosote bush, the narrow leaf yucca plant seems short and squatty. Its narrow, pale green fronds reach upwards trying to stretch itself as high as possible. Winding around the fronds like serpents, grey plant fibers grow in irregular curling patterns. With the combination of the pointed fronds and the reptilian hairs, the plant seems as though its bite would be venomous.

The exit of the sun and its challenge of heat brings another challenge in the form of nocturnal predators. As the sun lowers and is blocked by the sandstone and volcanic cones, a gila monster slips from its hidden burrow and begins to search for eggs to steal. At times, the gila monster must persuade parents to surrender their young, but a bite from this venomous lizard quickly ends all discussion. Most animals do not have to experience this however since the orange and black beaded scales of the gila monster act as a warning. The gila monster is joined by a sleek kit fox, whose long body easily winds between unruly bushes and leaps skillfully over small rocky chasms. The fox isn't picky about its food selections and will willingly eat anything from rabbits to plant life. Tonight, however, it seems that it will not have to find a palatable plant as it has just picked up the scent of a desert cottontail near the entrance to its burrow.

The kit fox crouches in the scrubby brush, resembling a house cat with larger than normal ears, as it stares fixedly on the small light colored rabbit ahead. The fox moves forward and suddenly launches itself in the direction of the cottontail like an Olympic sprinter. The cottontail becomes aware of its stalker and narrowly manages to twist out of the fox's snapping jaws as it begins its zigzagged pattern toward the safety of its burrow. The fox, realizing it has missed its opportunity at the rabbit, begins a new search for food.

After their night of hunting, the gila monster and kit fox return to their burrows to hide from the approaching sun and its overpowering rule. As the sun sends burning rays across the sagebrush, sandstone, and lava rocks, the stage of the desert prepares itself for another act. Hikers trek dejectedly across the petrified dunes, the heat rising from the rock assaulting them from all directions. As they approach a tall desert willow, its small, pale green leaves twitch and shake as an array of brown sparrows flee and rise into the air above them. Farther down the rock strewn path, a fleeting flash of brown and white is seen. A cottontail has become aware of their presence and uses its distinct white tail to alert any other cottontails to the possible danger. The hikers cannot help but feel they have been shunned by the inhabitants of the desert who flee at their approach. One inhabitant, however, does not flee; it escapes their notice all together.

Pressed up against the gritty rock face, a leopard lizard blends seamlessly with the sandstone. As it moves away from the rock, the pinkish brown color of its scales changes subtly into a yellow brown that matches the illuminated sand beneath the rock. The ability to alter its coloration and become almost invisible makes it easy for the leopard lizard to ambush its prey of spiders and small rodents. Unfortunately, the movement from the sandstone onto the desert floor places the lizard into the path of a waiting gopher snake.

Gracefully, the gopher snake wraps its long body around the lizard and gradually tightens until the lizard goes limp in its cream and black coils. As the gopher snake begins slowly digesting the latest of its meals, it becomes aware of a bird watching from a few paces away. The gopher snake quickly decides it is in danger and begins to flatten its head, shake the tip of its tail, and make a sharp rattling noise to mimic a desert rattlesnake. This tactic has served the gopher snake well but ironically the bird watching is a roadrunner and has no qualms about digesting a poisonous rattlesnake.

The roadrunner snatches the mimicking gopher snake and trots away with a fourth of the snake still dangling from its beak. Later in the day, after the snake has been digested, the roadrunner dutifully eats its feces in hopes of reabsorbing some lost water. As the roadrunner proceeds through its familiar patch of desert, it passes a desert tortoise determinedly trudging towards a burrow or a cache of water. The tortoise continues on, making an occasional poink as it stops to eat low-growing shrubs. The tortoise matches the land perfectly; its colors blending with the brown reds of the sandstone and the black lava flows. The rough-lined skin shows the wear of the elements and how the tortoise has become in tune with its surroundings in order to survive.

Each plant, reptile, bird and mammal has also had to become in tune with this unique world where the Mojave and Great Basin Deserts intersect with the Colorado Plateau. Only the plants that grow narrow, pale leaves to keep as much moisture as possible do not instantly shrivel from the ceaseless heat. Animals must devise a way to conserve water and energy, either by only emerging at night like the kit fox, or like the roadrunner by re-consuming its food. Only these well adapted species of animals manage to roam here, able to submit to the whims of the sun and still have the drive to search for food.